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Using a Designated Driver

Within the United States, more than one person dies every hour of every day in a motor vehicle crash that involves an alcohol-impaired driver, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) publishes. In 2015, more than 10,000 Americans died in an alcohol-impaired crash; this equates to 28 people dying every day in the United States from a drunk driving incident.

Drunk driving fatalities are preventable. In 1988, the Harvard Alcohol Project was launched as a method to bring these tragic numbers down. This project brought the Scandinavian concept of the "designated driver" into America. A designated driver, or DD, is a person who agrees to abstain from drinking so they can then drive others home safely. Instead of being an anti-alcohol message, the designated driver concept just asked people to be responsible when consuming alcohol and to have a plan in place. This helped to change the way the public viewed alcohol consumption outside the home.

The Harvard Alcohol Project worked closely with Hollywood and all of the major networks to launch PSAs (public service announcements) on the dangers of drinking and driving, and to help bring the concept of a DD into social norms. Popular shows at the time included the topic. Government officials, advocacy groups, professional sports leagues, police departments, major corporations, brewers and distillers, and many publicly prominent individuals jumped on board to promote it. The nonprofit grassroots group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) led the charge to make the concept of the designated driver commonplace.

By 1991, designated driver was accepted into the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, and in just four years (between 1988 and 1992), drunk driving deaths dropped almost one-quarter, DesignatedDriving.net reports. Harvard publishes that more than half of Americans who report drinking in their lives say they have been a designated driver, or been driven home by one, and over 60 percent of frequent drinkers report the same. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) publishes that alcohol-related traffic deaths have declined by nearly 50 percent since the early 1980s.

Alcohol is still a major risk factor in preventable impaired-driving deaths, however. Choosing a designated driver is a great way to stay safe and drink responsibly.

Good (and Bad) Ways to Choose a DD

Alcohol is an extremely social substance that adults aged 21 and older can enjoy responsibly and safely. The legal limit for drinking and then operating a motor vehicle though is a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent g/dL. Anything above this amount is considered to be impaired driving in all 50 states.

In general, a "standard" drink, as defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) is generally the equivalent of one beer (12 ounces with 5% alcohol), one glass of wine (5 ounces with 12% alcohol), or one shot of distilled liquor (1.5 ounces of 80 proof liquor, which contains 40% alcohol). Drinking more than two drinks in the span of two hours will typically raise a person's BAC above the legal driving limit.

Any amount of alcohol can impact a person's ability to think clearly and make rational decisions, and it can impair memory and movement. A person under the influence of alcohol is unable to make great choices, often has fewer inhibitions, and is likely to be more social. Alcohol impairs coordination, judgment, reaction time, balance, alertness, ability to think clearly and rationally, and vision; it increases risk-taking behaviors while making it more difficult to recognize danger, all of which can be hazardous when a person who has been drinking gets behind the wheel of a car. Everyone metabolizes and absorbs alcohol at different rates, so in reality, there is no real "safe" amount of alcohol a person can consume and then drive. Choosing a designated driver is always the safest and most responsible route.

How to choose a designated driver wisely:

  • Pick a responsible and safe driver with a valid driver's license and current automobile insurance.
  • Choose someone who is able to resist temptation and not drink. Many bars or events will provide alcoholic-free beverages, or other perks, to designated drivers.
  • Find a reliable person who will either agree to come and pick everyone up when called, or who will stay on location and not drink.
  • Plan ahead before everyone starts drinking. Do not wait until alcohol consumption has begun and rely on who is the "least drunk," or who has had the fewest drinks. Remember the DD has a responsibility to stay sober all night. Once everyone starts drinking, it is harder to make good, rational decisions.
  • Consider taking turns being the DD so no one feels resentful.
  • Be sure that the chosen DD is available when you need them to be.

Tips on being a designated driver:

  • Eat a large meal ahead of time so you are full and not tempted to have a drink.
  • Drink flavored beverages while out, such as a soda or fruit juice, so you feel you are partaking with a beverage in your hand. This also helps to avoid conversations about why you aren't drinking.
  • Position yourself away from the bar so you are not tempted to imbibe.
  • Keep yourself occupied. Play darts or pool, dance, or talk to people, anything to take the focus off the fact you are not drinking. Have fun doing other things instead.
  • Remember that being a designated driver is a big responsibility and can literally be a lifesaver. No amount of alcohol is worth going back on your word.

There are also alternatives to having a friend, relative, or loved one being the specific designated driver. There are many professional car services, such as Uber or Lyft, that people can use to request a ride to and from places or home. Leave your car where it is and come back for it later after you have sobered up. This is much cheaper than the alternative of a DUI or worse. Taxis, public transportation, or calling someone you know are other options as well. You can even decide to take a driving service, both to and from a location to eliminate the temptation to drive and the hassle of having to get your car later.

Professional designated drivers are also an option, and they are often able to pick people up on location when needed. There are also designated driver services in many areas of the country, and the National Directory of Designated Driver Services (NDDDS) can be a great resource that is updated frequently to stay as current as possible. Around big holidays, such as the 4th of July and New Year's Eve, many taxis or local ride services may be free or have specials running to ensure that people get home safely without drinking and driving.

Drinking can sneak up on people, and you may not have meant to drink as much as you did. Just be safe about it, and don't try to drive home drunk. Set up a plan to have a DD and stick with it to ensure that everyone gets home safely.